The good folks at JMU Sports Blog contacted me about doing a Q&A for the upcoming game. Here is what Todd and Rob had to say about everything from James Madison's offense and defense to the possibility of a move to FBS.
1. How does this season's version of JMU compare to the one that beat Virginia Tech a year ago?
Last year's team was overrated early on because of the Tech win. This year's team is probably a little underrated and they "should" be significantly better than last year, but only because everyone is assuming/hoping that the offense will be improved. A couple key additions, another year of experience for the o-line. and a clear #1 QB heading into the season for the first time since 2008 have everyone optimistic. The D returns virtually the entire core of a unit that was top 3 in the FCS last year. If the offense doesn't improve though, it's going to be the same old story.
2. What is the outlook for James Madison this season? How much do you love having a playoff to determine the champion?
William & Mary is the consensus favorite in the CAA and JMU is bunched together with 3 or 4 other teams expected to contend. JMU has a tougher schedule than some of the other CAA teams (particularly Delaware), but the Dukes are expected to finish near the top of the CAA and make the playoffs. We love the playoffs. It doesn't take away from the intensity of conference games at all (no matter what idiots like Craig James say) and because the CAA is so strong it almost always leads to great inter-conference match-ups in the post season. With only 12 games, it's not like basketball where any individual game really is reduced. Last year for example, even with our hideous offense, fans could still believe we had a shot all the way up until that 5th loss in the Week 9 or so. JMU won our only national title in 2004 with an 8-3 regular season. Way more fun that the Bowl system in our opinion.
3. How would you describe JMU's offense and defense?
Last year JMU's offense consisted of throwing bubble screens and praying for someone to break one long. The one exception was when they lined WR Dae'Quan Scott up at wildcat QB and let him almost single-handedly upset W&M. (we were 0-1 passing on the day, all day that is). With Scott moved to RB, expect a run heavy offense with a lot of option play. The D doesn't cause a lot of turnovers or get a lot of sacks, they just keep teams from getting in the endzone. Nothing flashy, but effective.
4. Who are the key players on the offensive side of the ball?
On O, C Roane Babington is probably our best player, and it will be interesting to see how he matches up with UNC's stud D-Line. Usually our RB's and WR's are fairly interchangeable in the spread option style attack and Dae'Quan Scott and Kerby Long will be the primary playmakers, though everything will hinge on QB Justin Thorpe who is an exceptional athlete and won the 2009 CAA ROY before being injured for the season in the opening game last year. Also, don't be surprised to see backup QB Jace Edwards for a few series regardless of how close the game is.
5. Who are the key players on defense?
On D, our absolute favorite player on the team is DE D.J. Bryant (#13). Undersized, but lightning quick and relentless. LB's Pat Williams and Stephon Robertson are tackling machines, though in this game they'll likely need lots of help from safety Vidal Nelson. This is our deepest defense ever with FCS starters two deep everywhere but DT, so look for LOTS of rotation as the top priorities in this game are avoiding injuries and collecting a check.
6. Which JMU player or players do you think is an X factor or might surprise UNC.
On O, TE Brian Barlow could surprise given the pressure Thorpe may be under. Barlow is sneaky and our TE's have been heavily involved in our FBS games the last two years (OT loss to Maryland and VTech). On D, FS Jakarie Jackson has a nose for the ball and if Renner's early reputation as a bit of gunslinger proves correct, he could have opportunities for big plays.
7. Where do you think the program is at? Are you happy with the current coaching staff?
It's a critical year. JMU has invested a ton of money (for an FCS program) in football and has generated a lot of excitement amongst the fanbase. The team has to get back to the playoffs to keep up the momentum and fill the stadium. Sadly a lot of alums still don't care about CAA play and won't really pay attention until JMU goes D-1. In some ways the win over VA Tech might contribute to that attitude by giving some alums the incorrect notion that JMU is on equal ground with FBS programs. I love Mickey, but am curious how things will work out with him running the offense. Lots of fans have been down on Jeff Durden's playcalling, so it's going to be fun to see if it there is any difference under Mickey.
8. Appalachian St says it is thinking about a move to FBS does James Madison have any such designs?
Not publicly, but the new stadium pretty much speaks for itself. I think they're keeping tabs on App State, Nova, and others and would jump to make a move only if the right opportunity presented itself. Nobody with a clue expects a BCS conference to come calling, but the feeling is that JMU would only move up if they could see a potential to BCS play down the road (i.e. moving to a conference that could eventually make them attractive to a BCS conference). The administration isn't going to jump for a Sunbelt invite.